Most revelers choose caviar or oysters when deciding what to pair with Champagne on New Year's Eve. But as a baker, I love all things buttery and flaky. So as Dec. 31 approaches, I look forward to puff pastry appetizers with my bubbly.
Classic puff pastry is made by wrapping a block of butter in a packet of dough, and then rolling and folding this butter-filled packet repeatedly to create a dough with 729 layers (yes, that is the exact number). When heated, the air pockets between the layers expand and the water in the butter evaporates, causing the layers to separate and puff.
Making puff pastry from scratch takes time (the dough has to be refrigerated after every fold so the butter won't melt). It also takes skill (puff pastry is one of the "events" in an Olympic-style competition held every four years in France to anoint the country's best bakers). Even professionals rarely make their own. One of the most interesting things I learned as an apprentice at a four-star French restaurant in Manhattan was that the award-winning pastry chef used all-butter Dufour-brand frozen puff pastry, made in the Bronx, in his desserts. If it is good enough for him, it is good enough for me.
Handle frozen puff pastry carefully for the highest rise and the flakiest texture. Thaw it overnight in the refrigerator and then let it sit at room temperature for 15 minutes so it is chilly but pliable. If it is too warm, it will stick and tear. Too cold, and it will crack and break. If it becomes sticky while you are working with it, slide it onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate it until it is cool again. It doesn't hurt to chill your rolled dough for 15 minutes before putting it in the oven. Puff pastry needs an initial blast of heat to make it rise, so be sure your oven is fully heated before you bake.
The following nibbles can be shaped up to 2 weeks in advance, frozen and baked right from the freezer:
CHEESE STRAWS Roll a half-sheet (about 7 ounces) of puff pastry into a 10-by-12- inch rectangle. Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Cut into a dozen 1-inch strips, twist a few times, arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in a 375-degree oven until puffed and golden, 15 to 18 minutes.
GOAT CHEESE PUFFS Roll a sheet (about 14 ounces) of puff pastry into a 14-by-14-inch square. Cut in half to make two 7-by-14-inch rectangles. Mix 3/4 of a cup of goat cheese and 2 tablespoons of tapenade or pesto and roll into 32 balls. Place balls at even intervals in 4 rows of 8 on one piece of puff pastry. Top with second piece of puff pastry. Brush top with beaten egg. Use a fluted pastry cutter to cut and seal filling into individual pieces. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 425-degree oven until puffed and golden, 15 to 20 minutes.
UPSCALE PIGS IN BLANKETS Roll up 2-inch pieces of cooked, cured or smoked sausage in thin triangles of puffed pastry. Place exposed point side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees until puffed and golden, 18 to 20 minutes.
My favorite puff pastry shape is the curlicued palmier. For a cocktail party, I make savory mini palmiers, filled with cheese and herbs. Supermarket puff pastry, made with vegetable shortening, will work in this recipe. But it is worth seeking out all-butter puff pastry for its superior flavor.
MINI PALMIERS WITH GRUYÈRE, MUSTARD AND THYME
Flour for sprinkling work surface and rolling pin
1/2 sheet (about 7 ounces) frozen all-butter puff pastry
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon grainy mustard
1/2 cup (1 1/2 ounces) shredded Gruyère cheese
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1. Dust work surface with flour. Place puff pastry on work surface and quickly roll with a lightly floured rolling pin into a 12-by-9-inch rectangle.
2. Brush pastry with beaten egg. Spread mustard over pastry with a small metal spatula. Sprinkle with cheese and thyme. Pat lightly with your fingers so cheese adheres to pastry.
3. With tip of a paring knife, mark a line lengthwise down center of pastry (do not cut through). Carefully roll long sides of rectangle toward centerline, so the sides meet in middle. Wrap rolled pastry in plastic and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
5. Use sharp knife or pastry wheel to cut pastry roll into 1/4-inch slices. Arrange slices 1 inch apart on baking sheets.
6. Bake until golden brown, 17 to 20 minutes. Cool on baking sheets for 15 minutes and then slide parchment with palmiers to a wire rack to cool completely.
Makes about 26 palmiers.